Packers healthy as regular season nears
When Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks to the left, there's Jordy Nelson.
When he looks to the right, there's Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin.
When he drops back to pass, his starting offensive line surrounds him.
When he hands off, Eddie Lacy is there to grab the ball.
This is what Rodgers has gotten used to all training camp long because through the first 3½ weeks of camp, the Packers have been a healthy football team.
A year ago, coach Mike McCarthy was a frustrated wreck because so many adjustments had to be made in camp to account for all the injuries, many of them to starters and key backups. There were days he had to cut practice short because players were getting worn out with all the extra duty they had to perform.
McCarthy saw the benefits of having all his parts together when the No. 1 offense went out and performed in midseason fashion against the St. Louis Rams, putting together back-to-back scoring drives of 86 and 80 yards.
More will be known about how well the offense is playing when the starters play at least a quarter against the Oakland Raiders at 7 p.m. Friday at Lambeau Field. Of course, the real test will be Sept. 4 when the Packers face the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
What McCarthy's offense—the defense for that matter, too—has been able to do with a full deck is go beyond the normal steps necessary to prepare for a season. The timing part appears to be down. Now it's about expanding the scope of what this offense might be able to do and applying it to the game plan for the Seahawks.
“When you're in the camp environment, you need to be challenged in different ways,” Rodgers said. “I've taken it upon myself, and the coaching staff as well, to challenge the guys every day on whether it's signal recognition or format recognition or just their basic assignment, changing those things up to see how they can respond and the guys at every position did a really nice job.”
This year, a total of 14 players have missed at least one practice or game during training camp, down from 26 in 2013. There have been three season-ending injuries suffered, but only one to someone in the top two of the depth chart (tackle Don Barclay). Only three of the 14 players have missed six or more days.
A year ago, Rodgers didn't have Nelson (knee) for 15 days, Cobb for seven days, Lacy for four days and tight end Andrew Quarless for 11 days.
The defense, meanwhile, worked without cornerback Tramon Williams (knee) for 19 days, safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) for three days, linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring) for three days, end Datone Jones (ankle) for six days and cornerback Casey Hayward (hamstring) off and on until his season ended in September.
On offense, Rodgers has been working every day with Nelson, Cobb and Jarrett Boykin on figuring out how to make it harder to defend them. Lacy has expanded his game, so that he can be a receiving option when no one is open down the field.
These are things the Packers did not have the luxury of working on as intensely last season.
“We really worked on a lot of things, whether it's on the field or in the Hutson Center, changing signals up, having a set of signals for the preseason and then being able to change that for the regular season,” Rodgers said. “Working on the different things we can expand on from last year that worked, base concepts with the wrinkles.”
During every practice open to the public, the offense goes into the Don Hutson Center for the first 20 minutes and works on things it plans on doing against Seattle. In previous years, the Packers have kind of jogged into the season hoping to open up as the season goes along.
The challenge put in front of McCarthy is preparing the team to be ready to play five days after final cuts are made. The Packers play their final exhibition game Aug. 28 against Kansas City and then go to work full time on the Seahawks.
“We play seven days after our last preseason game, so there's a reason why we go inside for the first 20 minutes before practice starts,” McCarthy said. “It's really geared toward our first game.
“I think our players, particularly on offense, have done a great job with communication. No huddle is a big part of what we do. To have a set of signals for preseason and a whole different set for the regular season, this is really the first year we've done that. So, we just have a lot more going on.”
On defense, coordinator Dom Capers has been able to accomplish some of the same things McCarthy has on offense. Every day his unit also works on the game plan it intends to spring on the Seahawks.
As important as formulating the game plan for the opener is getting newcomer Julius Peppers in sync with being an outside linebacker and complementing linebacker Clay Matthews. Much of Capers' defense is based on timed blitzes and it requires a lot of work together.
In addition, safety Micah Hyde has been getting used to a new position and Capers has been trying all kinds of different combinations in his nickel and dime packages. He has had the luxury of getting all the veterans a lot of work together.
“I like the fact we've been able to keep guys on the field working,” Capers said. “So I think we have a little bit more continuity. I think we have better competition. All you have to go off of is two preseason games, but I like the way our run defense has responded in those games. That's where everything starts. And I like the way we've been able to pressure the quarterback.
“Each week, you kind of look and hope you make progress. And I saw progress from Week 1 to Week 2, and Friday night will be another step to see if we can make more progress.”
So far, that progress has not been impeded by injuries.